Felice Picano's worshipers know him as a prolific author, poet, and memoirist who helped shape the gay lit genre in the 1970s and `80s. Throughout 1980 and `81, Picano and six fellow gay authors, together called the Violet Quill, met to share and discuss their work. On the eve of the club's reunion this week, Out chatted with Picano about living on Fire Island, the last sexual frontier, and his place in gay history. And in the spirit of creative writing, we prompted the author with questions inspired by each letter of his name.
Out: F is for fictional gay sex: Describe the sensation of writing a sex scene.
Felice Picano: When the Violet Quill met years ago, one of the things we decided was there had to be gay sex in gay books, because that's what makes us different from straight people. So, in any case that I've written about it, and it hasn't been much at all, I tend to be as true to reality as I remember. Since I came out in the `60s, I've had lots and lots and lots of sex, so I had a lot of experience and I was able to draw on that very easily. But the way I write stories, it's just very seldom that people have sex.
E is for erection: What's your favorite euphemism for an erection?
Diamond cutter. That's what we used to call it. I'm 67 and no longer have diamond cutters.
L is for love: How do you react to the growing prominence of gay love stories in mainstream culture?
I'm glad to see it on film and TV. I don't see enough of it. I'm the type of person who will yell out in a movie theater, 'Gratuitous heterosexuality!' I'd like to see more love between men and men and women and women in movies. Not every story is two beautiful 30-year-old men having sex. There's all kinds of variations and I think that it's up to gay and lesbian writers to start writing about those variations.
I is for island: What is it about Fire Island that has helped to maintain its status as a hub of gay culture?
It's because it's an island. All islands are alike in that you're away from the mainland. You're free, in a sense. Fire Island for years was a place on the East Coast to be a free person: free to love, free to fool around, free to be whatever you want. People are able to drop their burdens and stresses and tensions and just be free. I lived there for 10 summers. It became a home to me.
C is for club: Why is now the time for the reunion of the Violet Quill club?
We all got an award last year for being pioneers. A lot of people thought that was overdue. We were all in a literary magazine, which I edited, and the publisher asked if I wouldn't mind flying in for it. I had the time. But I don't know if all three of us read together, ever. We were all in an anthology that I edited in 1981, but I don't remember Andrew Holleran or Edmund White reading there. This might actually be a first.
Well, fittingly, E is for Edmund White: He's said that writing his first gay (unpublished) novel at age 15 was a way of processing his own sexuality. Do you identify with that?
I'm thinking about that. I mean that's very smart, but I don't know if that's real. I was always very comfortable with my sexuality from the beginning. I came out, like completely, in 1965 and I've just been waiting for the world to catch up ever since. I had no problems coming out. I just thought I was able to do everything that the rest of the world could do.
P is for penis: Can we please talk about Robert Mapplethorpe's penis obsession and why his images still push people's buttons?
He was so open about what he was doing there that I'm amazed by all these biographers who insist that he had an affair with this woman and with that woman. He had an interest in women, but if you didn't have a cock, you weren't on his radar. It was pretty simple. Why are people still bothered? I guess the penis is the last frontier. People very easily talk about bowel movements and we have The Vagina Monologues touring around the world, but nobody really talks about dick. It's still the thing. He dealt with it as an object. If it's erect, it can only be aggressive. No matter what you do, it's sexual.
I is for I: Give me three words that describe all that is Felice Picano.
Individual. Curious. Creative. I'm looking for something that sums up who I am every day. Whatever else I am, I'm usually those three things.
C is for chronicler: In Art & Sex in Greenwich Village you write about feeling unprepared for the role you've played as gay literature's de facto historian. Why is that?
It's, unfortunately, because there are so few people around from that time. I've had to embrace it. It's not a bad thing. You have to understand that I was always the youngest. I graduated college and I had just turned 20. So, I was always the kid in any group up until 20 years ago. For me to suddenly be put in this other position, that's what makes it odd to me. I always keep looking over my shoulder for the person who can really do the job right, who is more prepared for it.
A is for Allen Ginsberg: Are you planning to see James Franco's portrayal of him in Howl?
I knew him. I had three or four encounters with him in my life. I may not go because I remember him so very well, because he was such a distinctive character. I may see it on video because you can just shut it off if you're not interested.
N is for New York City: It was your home until you moved away 15 years ago, so what does the city mean to you?
Right now it's really a strange place for me whenever I visit. It's the most changing city in America. It changes in a way that L.A. doesn't. I've been coming out to L.A. since I was 16 years old and on Sunset Plaza there was a glasses store in 1962 that's still there today. Things change in New York so entirely. Every time I go there I'm rediscovering it. I just finished writing a little history memoir called Nights at Rizzoli. I ended up being the manager of Rizzoli Bookstore back in the early `70s, so it's about the early `70s in New York City -- gay life and just what it was like, because there was a four- or five-year period where it was extremely unique and different than it's been since. New York was empty and broke and a lot of people had moved out. It was not as vibrant as it is now but that meant there were other things that could be interesting about it.
O is for Out: If you could control our cover, who would you put there?
I'd love to see a writer. Maybe Len Barot, who goes by Radclyffe. She's about as dynamic now as I was when I was writing a gay book every year and publishing 20 gay books by others a year. She's a smart, funny person. Of course, I wouldn't mind being on the cover either.
Felice Picano, editor of Van Gogh's Ear: The Supernatural Edition, has brought together new work by his fellow surviving members of the Violet Quill, plus many more great talents, to make this seventh and final volume of the Van Gogh's Ear anthology series, founded by Ian Ayres, even more fascinating.
On Tuesday, November 2 at 7 p.m, Picano, Edmund White, and Andrew Holleran will reunite for a literary happening at Manhattan's 192 Books, 192 Tenth Ave., New York City. Visit 192books.com for more info.